How Soft Skills Shape Modern Leadership

Business leaders must harness their soft skills in order to embrace change and anticipate the future, writes Bin Ma.

Listen to this Article

In the past, companies have set their own rules for hiring CEOs and senior executives, focusing on technical expertise, management skills, and a proven track record for managing financial resources. But today, as organizations become more complex, as technology and multicultural requirements increase, companies can no longer assume that leaders with these traditional management abilities are, in fact, qualified to manage at the highest levels of the organization. C-level executives need superb soft skills. They must be able to empathize, communicate, build trust, resolve conflict, and adapt and respond to change.

Soft skills are crucial, particularly in addressing complex systemic issues within business environments. While functional expertise remains essential, it’s no longer adequate on its own to tackle intricate problems. Leaders must possess both soft skills and functional proficiency to facilitate cross-departmental collaboration and address multifaceted challenges collectively. Likewise, leaders within functional departments need to enhance their soft skills to comprehend and leverage information from various sources across the organization, contributing effectively to the enterprise’s overarching goals. This heightened emphasis on soft skills places greater demands on leaders across all levels. Despite advancements in technology facilitating the acquisition of functional skills, the increasing complexity of contemporary business issues underscores the importance of soft skills, amplifying the intricacies of a leader’s role.

When confronting complex systemic issues, leaders must first establish mutual trust by leveraging soft skills before delegating hard knowledge and providing access to vital information to functional departments. This approach allows leaders to draw upon their distinct insights and vision, potentially leading to conclusions that are different from those of other functional managers. Subsequently, leaders who employ soft skills are better able to facilitate the successful rollout of their decisions.

Moreover, soft skills are integral in engaging with diverse stakeholders within the enterprise. Today, product quality alone cannot bring success – it is a leader’s capacity to empathize with customer needs and effectively communicate this empathy that also determines the market success of a product. Take Apple, for instance; while the company boasts exceptional product quality, Tim Cook’s adept communication and empathetic approach during product launches have been instrumental in driving the company’s commercial success and ability to adapt to rapidly changing markets. Thus, beyond technical prowess and product acumen, business leaders must prioritize the cultivation of a holistic skill set that includes empathy, communication, and negotiation.

Furthermore, in this era of big data and artificial intelligence, technology is more likely to replace functional skills than soft skills, which makes these soft skills even more essential to career progression and success in business. Leaders must be able to adeptly navigate the intricate web of customer concerns, supply chain dynamics, and partner relationships. Gone are the days when business challenges could be resolved through isolated transactions; today, success hinges on fostering synergies across multifaceted processes. Adaptability to this multifarious ecosystem is paramount, as failure to do so may spell doom for enterprises in an era defined by relentless change.

The exchange of information is based on subjective perceptions.

Regarding China, this presents an interesting opportunity for the country’s companies. Cross-cultural studies have shown that East Asian cultural circles, including China, favor long-term planning and are highly resilient in the face of uncertainty. This gives them a cultural head start in solving complex systemic problems. This is also reflected in the greater willingness of Chinese entrepreneurs to display soft skills to plan for the long term and solve problems more flexibly.

It is interesting to note that while soft skills have always been innately important in China’s business world, these strengths may have been constrained by a previous stage of development that pursued the hard skills and efficiency metrics reflected in a more Western management theory framework. But, as problems within a Chinese global company became more complex and comprehensive solutions became imperative, the soft skills of Chinese entrepreneurs began to emerge. When a Chinese firm goes through a process of internationalization, its business leaders and the business itself become cultural ambassadors in the global arena, a form of soft power through business practices. In order to make headway in the global environment, modern business leaders must have the ability to understand, adapt, compromise, and cooperate.

It is true that information technology has reduced the obstacles posed by cultural differences. In addition, modern information systems help provide a greater understanding of different markets. However, the exchange of information is based on subjective perceptions, which prompts us not to overemphasize differences but to instead seek more mutual understanding. Such soft skills can be learned, although an individual’s social skills, personality, and talents also play a role in this learning process.

If we consider different leadership styles, such as those of Apple’s two CEOs, Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, we can see that although they have different hard skills and technical backgrounds, they both have excellent soft skills. This suggests that soft skills play an important role in different environments, and although the technical backgrounds of CEOs leading successful companies may vary widely, the changing business environment continues to require soft skills – and involves the influence of personality, habits, learning, and social culture on behavioral habits.

Future trends suggest that cultural integration will increasingly homogenize regional cultures. Behavioral and sociology research shows that people need to understand each other’s concerns so as to adapt and coexist with each other. In a global talent strategy, this manifests in equitable treatment for all employees, encompassing comprehensive support, social security provisions, and an enhanced working environment anchored by stable income. At the same time, generational changes have brought new requirements to enterprises, including individual health, overall happiness and well-being, and the realization of individual worth. Notably, leading high-tech firms are vying for talent in the global market by prioritizing employee well-being, shaping corporate cultures that accommodate generational disparities and global viewpoints, and focusing on employees’ physical and mental wellness.

It is critical for business leaders to understand, embrace, and anticipate change. Business leaders and entrepreneurs must learn to adjust from a hard technology orientation of pursuing efficiency and productivity to a change-driven business environment. It is no longer about relying on the segmented efficiencies of the past but understanding and synthesizing information to make decisions that address the complex systemic issues of the present. It may be difficult to define the boundaries of soft skills such as empathy, communication, and the ability to adapt to change, yet they are nevertheless indispensable skills. We do not need to idealize them – these skills can be learned through self-improvement and systematic education and training. Leaders must make the effort. These attitudes and behaviors will play a key role in shaping the future business landscape, and the ability to adapt to change, summarize patterns, and anticipate the future will be a key factor in fashioning success.


A version of this article originally ran in the Chinese edition of the Harvard Business Review, 哈佛商业评论.


© IE Insights.


Sign up for our Newsletter

Newsletter Subscription